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Fire, Ice and Anthrax at 'The End of the World'

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, August 05, 2016

Fire Ice and Illnesses Frozen Undergound

In the windswept tundra of northern Siberia, the cascading and unpredictable consequences of climate change have brought huge holes in the earth, flaming explosions that burst through ice, and illnesses from ancient pathogens. 

Yamal, which means “the end of the world,” is the ancestral home of the Nenets, an indigenous nomadic people who raise and live among reindeer. Scientific American and The Washington Post report an outbreak of anthrax has killed at least one child, resulted in hospitalization of hundreds, and infected many more.  The Russian government has airlifted many families away from their homes to avoid the public health hazard of more than 2,300 reindeer infected with anthrax. Russian officials are vaccinating surviving reindeer and burying carcasses.  

Initially a mystery, scientists now believe a sudden heat wave with temperatures this summer in the 90s caused an unusually deep melt in the permafrost, bringing to the surface the carcass of a reindeer that died of anthrax more than 75 years ago.   Permafrost is a thick layer of subsoil that has stayed frozen trough at least two summers, and in some places can be hundreds of yards deep.  Much of the Siberian and Arctic permafrost has been frozen for millennia.  Jean-Michel Claverie at the National Center for Scientific Research in France says anthrax and other bacteria and viruses can remain alive in frozen soil for a very long time. 

Scientific American reports Arctic zones are warming at unprecedented speed. The summer of 2014 was hotter than average by 9 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat that melted the ice also activated the dormant anthrax bacteria, allowing growth of spores that spread across the tundra and infected grazing reindeer. Brigitta Evengard, a microbiologist at Umea University in Sweden, a scholar of diseases and climate, notes people and animals that could be infected with all kinds of pathogens have been buried in permafrost for centuries. Scientists are just beginning to investigate that, and Evengard things more anthrax is likely to surface in Siberia. Researchers have already found bits of the 1918 Spanish flue virus in corpses buried in Alaska’s tundra.   “So we really don’t know what’s buried up there,” Evengard told NPR.  “This is a Pandora’s Box.

In addition to the unexpected anthrax outbreak, The Siberian Times reports, scientists have been examining several huge, deep craters that have appeared recently on the Yamal Peninsula. Several theories, including asteroids and underground missiles, were considered before scientists concluded the likely culprit was temporary warming and long term climate change.   A story in Nature explains that with low temperature and high pressure, hydrogen, methane and water can freeze together into what’s called methane hydrate locked within permafrost.  Melting permafrost triggers the accumulation and release of volatile “fire ice” gases that create giant funnels of flame with they explode.  Methane is a greenhouse gas vastly more powerful than carbon dioxide, and many scientists believe the Arctic will become the epicenter of global climate change.  Watch a YouTube video of a fireball breaking through Arctic ice.


Remembering Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”


Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.


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